Legal challenges to the Tampa, Florida-based Greater Ministries International Church are piling up. On January 20, Pennsylvania Judge Eunice Ross granted the state attorney general's request for a sweeping contempt of court order that may cost the ministry millions in fines and jail its leader, Gerald Payne. The contempt ruling also sets the stage for a freedom of religion appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Greater Ministries has operated what it calls a "gift in, gift out" program, which promised that contributors would receive double their money back within 18 months as a takeoff on Jesus' advice on giving in Luke 6:38 (CT, Jan. 11, 1999, p. 16). Its leaders claim to have distributed more than $500 million in such "gifts," to between 20,000 and 80,000 contributors, in all 50 states.

Greater's statements and literature claim that this doubling of gifts has been financed with profits from foreign trading in precious metals and gold mining. No financial reports about its activities have been made public, however, and most payments to donors ceased several months ago.

Securities regulators have called Greater Ministries a Ponzi scheme, and it has been dogged by an escalating series of legal attacks. Calling the gifting program an unregistered investment plan, regulators in California, Ohio, and Pennsylvania have issued cease-and-desist orders against it. Last July, Greater lost an estimated $20 million in the failure of a Colorado bank.

On December 11, two of Greater's California representatives pleaded no contest to state securities violations. Four days later, Florida officials obtained a guilty plea from Jonathan Strawder on grand theft and securities fraud charges. Strawder had been running a spinoff of Greater Ministries called ...

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